Classic Crime – Mark Mills

Mark Mills, author of WHERE DEAD MEN MEET, picks his favourite Classic Crime novel.

Posted on November 16, 2016 in Classic Crime, Guest Author
Tags: Author Content, Classic Crime, Historical Crime, Mark Mills, patricia highsmith

Many years ago I went through a Jim Thompson phase, picking off in quick succession four or five books by the king of raw, uncompromising American noir. My favourite of these was Pop. 1280 – a study of a psychopathic small town sheriff, written in the first person. There’s something entirely plausible about Nick Corey, and something not altogether unappealing about his solipsism and the twisted logic he employs to justify his appalling behaviour. Thanks to Breaking Bad and Dexter, we have grown accustomed to complex and sympathetic portrayals of characters whose moral compasses do not point true north, but at the time I had never come across anyone quite like the ruthless, self-serving Sheriff Corey. That was until I read The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

It isn’t the only novel I wish I had written, but it’s right up there near the top of the list. As with Pop. 1280, it is a portrait of a psychopath who thinks little of taking the life of another human being. Corey and Ripley are not serial murderers. They do not kill for pleasure or to satisfy some dark compulsion deep within themselves; they do it for reasons of pure pragmatism – to remove an obstacle from their path, or to escape the long arm of the law. In Corey’s case, he’s on a mission to clean up the town and ensure that he is re-elected as sheriff. With Tom Ripley, he is simply searching for a better life.

He makes a statement to this effect as he takes the boat over from New York to Europe: an all-expenses-paid trip funded by the wealthy father of a vague acquaintance of Tom’s from university days, Dickie Greenleaf. Old man Greenleaf isn’t happy about Dickie frittering away his life in Italy, and Tom is tasked with persuading the errant son to return home. However, Tom soon finds himself seduced by Dickie’s sumptuous existence in Mongibello, a small coastal town south of Naples. He wants to share in it, and he does for a good while, until Dickie’s American girlfriend Marge comes between the two young men. Cruelly spurned by Dickie, Tom beats his almost-friend to death with an oar while the two of them are out boating. Tom scuttles the boat (along with the corpse) then sets about adopting Dickie’s identity so that he can keep living off the dead man’s considerable trust fund.

It’s an ambitious game of charades, one that requires delicacy, intelligence and ruthlessness, all of which Tom has in spades. Strangely, as the catalogue of close calls and more killing unfolds, we find ourselves rooting for Tom, hoping that he will somehow pull it off. How is this possible, given that he is such a deplorable character?

The answer lies in Highsmith’s mastery as a writer. Her prose is spare, unadorned; and the third person narrative voice is elusive, neutral, non-committal. It takes no view on the horrors it reports. Tellingly, though, it is not afraid to turn its sights on Tom’s victims. Dickie and his suspicious friend Freddie ooze the easy arrogance of the wealthy. They are young, hubristic, bursting with confidence and a sense of entitlement. Who among us hasn’t found themselves on the wrong end of people like that at one time or another: ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, even scorned?

This doesn’t for a moment justify Tom’s actions, but the seed has been sown by Highsmith, and she nurtures it beautifully. Her creation, her monster, is almost child-like in his urges. He didn’t set out to kill Dickie; all he wanted was to get ahead in life, to belong, to be accepted, to be liked. He is probably incapable of reciprocating in any meaningful way the friendship he’s searching for, but the base impulses are ones that we can all relate to. This is what binds us to Tom; this is what makes us unwitting accomplices in his crimes … until we’ve finished the book and we lay it aside and we find ourselves feeling slightly sullied by our unnatural affiliation to the fellow.

Patricia Highsmith claimed that she felt Tom Ripley’s presence beside her while she was writing the novel. He isn’t real – he is the offspring of an extraordinary author’s dark imagination – and yet I like to think he’s out there, somewhere.


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